The country’s big – 472,000 square miles (1.2m Sq Km), making it 5 times larger than the UK. I planned to hire an aircraft in Johannesburg, a Cessna 182. Nearly all of my flying has been done on low wing aircraft; the Cessna was high wing. So, I first tracked down a 182 at Biggin Hill, flew it and got current on it. Then I went out to SA (on a commercial flight).
When I first saw the aircraft that I was to hire, my heart sank. There are rental aircraft; and then, there are rental aircraft. This one fell into the category of the latter. She was nicely coloured, in bright blue, red, yellow and green, but when I opened the door I realised that this was going to be a very uncomfortable aircraft to fly.She was sound enough mechanically (the engine had just had an overhaul) but the panel, avionics and electrics left something to be desired, and the cockpit leaked water when it rained. I immediately dubbed it The Flying Washing Machine, since both had fast revolving parts and both had water inside them. I seriously wondered whether this plane was going to be able to complete the 2,500 mile or so trip on which I was shortly to embark.
I took the South African Air Law Exam (passed, 95%). I was cleared on the aircraft later that morning, and to ensure I could start off on time I drove over to the South African Civil Aviation Authority that afternoon, with the Jo’burg roadmap in one hand, the other hand on the steering wheel and the other hand on the gear stick (hang on, that’s 3 hands…). Yes, it was a bit of a mad rush but I made it there in 45 minutes, just before they closed.Departure day was hot, some 25°C. As I taxied at the little airport called Brakpan Benoni that serves General Aviation aircraft at Jo’burg, an announcement came over the air, in English but of course in what to me was a heavy Afrikan accent: “Traffik at Brakpan Benoni, traffik at Brakpan Benoni, be advised thet ther arr karrs on tha rrunwaye, I sey agin, ther arr karrs on tha rrunwaye.” Cars, I thought? Cars? I had had quite some publicity already and people were coming to see me off…? Suddenly I felt rather important.
I always say flying is a humbling experience. As I lined up The Flying Washing Machine on the runway, I understood. Not cars. Cows! Four or five of these mangy-looking beasts had wandered onto the runway and were blocking it. I waited a while. The cows hardly looked at me as I rose above them.A couple of days later I reached Musina in the northern-most part of the country, 9 miles from the Border with Zimbabwe, at Beitbridge.
From where, in my thriller SPIDER 2-3, the terrorists fly in to steal the vital 9M714K-Alpha at the Fincrest Centre at Musina. The team carries out the operation brilliantly. It takes them exactly 46 minutes.
And they think they’ve got clean away with it…